Purely Japanese

Karen Tei Yamashita

Karen Tei Yamashita, a Californian-born sansei novelist who magically depicted her 10-year epistemological journey in Brazil both fantastically (in Through the Arc of the Rain Forest ) and historically (in Brazil-Maru ), now lives in Seto, Japan, and continues her search for the Japanese-Brazilian never-ending process of "travessia." Her diasporean and transcultural vision of the world has now lead her to finish writing a new saga, "Tropics of Orange," which will be published by Coffee House Press this summer

I have in mind three images that perhaps describe a part of my perceived and current relationship to Japan today. The first image is of the Butoh performer Kazuo Ohone dancing La Argentina. The second is a car: a shiny sleek Mazda RX7. And the third is a voice as well as the image of Maki Nomiya of the musical group, pizzicato 5. These are some of my favorite Japanese things, but also just some of my favorite things--reflecting a burnished and mature beauty, a graceful sense of line and movement, creative energy and play. They perhaps also reflect the cultural avant-garde, the technological and international nature of the modern world's relationship to things Japanese.

In the past, my relationship to Japan has been somewhat different, more literal, more questing. I came to Japan in early 70s as a student to study and travel. This was a period of activist movement across the world. In the U.S., the so-called Asian movement flowered with the quest for identity and the protest of the Vietnam War. I spent a year and half in Japan, my main focus being to research my family history, tracing my father's family back fourteen generations. My father's father came from a small Village near Nakatsugawa in Gifu, his mother from Tokyo. My mother's parents both came from Matsumoto in Nagano. All of my grandparents immigrated to the Bay Area---San Francisco and Oakland---at the turn of the century. They were Meiji Japanese.

When I first arrived in Tokyo, I had short cropped hair, wire-rim glasses, flared pants and a dark tan. I was a typical American sansei from California. As time passed, I exchanged my American clothing for Japanese, grew my hair, got contact lenses and lost my tan. I also had a intuitive grasp of mimicry. I pointed at my nose to indicate myself. I covered my mouth when I laughed. I held teacups with both bands. I kept my legs together when I sat. I used appropriately feminine Japanese. I passed.

But every now and again, I would be questioned in a round-about way about my ancestry, about my parents and their parents until my story ended in Gifu and Nagano. Then the questioner would exclaim with surprise: Ah, then you are a pure Japanese! What could a pure Japanese be? Indeed I felt hurt and resentment. I came from a country where many people, including my own, have long struggled with the pain of racism and exclusion. The purity of race was not something I valued or believed to be important, and yet I was trying so hard to pass, to belong.

Several years later, I received a fellowship to travel to Brazil. My proposal was to study Japanese immigration to that country. Brazil is home to over a million and a half Japanese immigrants and their descendants--the largest population of the Japanese rave outside of Japan. This community has a long and fascinating history, a complex and varied society. But I knew very little of this when I first arrived; chance and intuition sent me to Brazil. I admit that I wanted to spend time in a warm, tropical and sexy place, but perhaps I still wanted to know what being a pure Japanese might be. What was the essence, the thing that might survive assimilation and integration into a new culture and society, the thing that tied communities in the North to those in the South and to the Far East?

Many questions kept me busy in research for the next three years in Brazil. I wanted to know about the Japanese pioneering efforts, their clearing of virgin forests, their extensive accomplishments in agriculture, their social structures and political activity, their leisure and their ideas. I wanted to know who these people were, why they came, what they believed. I wanted to know the answers to questions that might take a lifetime to know: What is education? what is freedom? What is happiness?

In the meantime, I married a Brazilian architect and artist, and our children were born in Sao Paulo. I continued to live in Brazil for almost nine years. We lived in the very busy center of the city on the fourteenth floor of a high- rise. The street below was like a village unto itself, with small shops and businesses--the Portuguese bakery on the corner, the Korean grocery across the way, the stationery shop, the barber shop, the pool hall, the Italian butchers and the Japanese produce grocer--a cosmopolitan village.

Everyone called the Japanese grocer, Ňo japons". I was accustomed to asking Ňo japons" to save me a cake of tofu or putting aside a half dozen artichokes for lunch. One morning, I went down as usual with my daughter in a stroller to the street, stopping at all the usual places. This time Ňo japons" took up a conversation with me to satisfy his curiosity. He was an issei, immigrated to Brazil in the 30s. His children were nisei. I explained to him that I was sansei. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted to trace my roots, but as he insisted, I took him back to Japan to Gifu and to Nagano. Yes, I was without distractions, pure Japanese. I remember his reaction: "Ah," he exclaimed with a mixture of shock and disbelief, "how we are become so different by the third generation!" as if I, by some accelerated Darwinian law of evolution, represented a strange and curious transformation. Brazil is a warm and friendly place; it is hard to be resentful toward anyone, and his was a reaction full of honesty and innocence. I remember laughing and feeling happy to laugh.

In 1984, we moved as a family to Los Angeles. Through the experiences of my husband and children, I immigrated back into my own country. We have been part of a great movement of people from across the world. Los Angeles is one of the great centers of the Pacific Rim, to be compared with Mexico City and Tokyo--great urban cosmopolitan experiments of enormous energy and fomenting change. For the moment, we are a part of this change--immigrants, migrants, exiles, tourists, dekasegi, refugees, visitors, aliens, strangers, travelers all in search of home.

I return to my three images: Kazuo Ohno, the RX7 and Pizzicato 5--things old and new, daring, innovative, creative, international, full of humor, traveling fearlessly. Purely Japanese.

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copyright 1997 Karen Tei Yamashita

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